The inescapable context of the time

Once again we proclaim him king; and yet anew we do betray him for the sake of our own base desires. The shame he bears with silent grace is ours; he owns no guilt or sin; the cross belongs to those who will not hang upon its beam. His wounds severe, inflicted with foul unclean hands and hearts made of stone, weep bloodied tears for our redemption; all forgiven, all are loved.

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

How quick does love flow into hate; rare does hate reverse its course. Consider their royal proclamations, proceeding inescapably and with undue haste to such ignominy and shame: such narrative, inextricably woven within the fabric of the times, past, present and what is yet to come, indicts us all, save one.

Christ died between two thieves. He was innocent; they weren’t. However, because his sacrifice was seen against that horizon, it was judged, by association, by those present to be tainted as were the deaths of those he died with. People watching the crucifixion did not distinguish between who was guilty and who was innocent. They assessed what they saw en bloc. For them, all crucifixions meant the same thing.1

Sadly, it remains as true today as then. We live in an age and culture suffering from great divisions, conflict, moral decline, and lost virtue. Our Christian faith and Christ’s church have been accused, tried, convicted, scourged, and found guilty of many wrongdoings, some legitimate, others not.

Many have turned their backs on Church and God, just as those who first proclaimed Christ their king, covering the ground with cloaks and palm branches, and shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.”2

In many ways, it was perfectly fitting that Jesus would suffer and die among thieves for throughout his public ministry “Jesus walked with sinners, ate with them, was accused with them, and died with them.”3 It was for such as these—and for us—that the Son of God came into the world.

Paul, in writing to the Philippians, called upon them to “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”4 In calling upon them to be humble and to rid themselves of selfishness and conceit, Paul admonished them to take on the mantle of Christ.

Paul continued by invoking the early church hymn Carmen Christi:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.5

His pre-incarnate divine existence, equal to the Father God is acknowledged without explanation for it is beyond our capacity to understand. Yet he surrendered himself, becoming human in all things but sin, not to power and glory, but to lowly birth and servitude. In all things, he was obedient to the will of the Father, even accepting suffering and the scandal of death on a cross.

In Jesus we see God, made man for our sake and our salvation. His passion, death and resurrection made it possible for us to share in his immortality. As the Apostle so eloquently tells us, Jesus did not regard being God something to hold or use when confronted with suffering or death. Rather he became a slave to God and a servant to the people, suffering and dying for all of us. Crucified, Jesus was humiliated, shamed, and brutalized, but through it all he expressed only love and forgiveness.

The Carmen Christi sets Christ’s death within its proper context: it is at once the nadir of the divine condescension begun in the incarnation and the foundation of his exaltation and ultimate triumph over death and sin.

Augustine taught:

The master of humility is Christ who humbled himself and became obedient even to death, even the death of the cross. Thus he does not lose his divinity when he teaches us humility….What great thing was it to the king of the ages to become the king of humanity? For Christ was not the king … so that he might exact a tax or equip an army with weaponry and visibly vanquish an enemy. He was the king … in that he rules minds, in that he gives counsel for eternity, in that he leads into the kingdom of heaven for those who believe, hope, and love.6

The triumphant royal procession as well as the betrayals of the human heart are tightly woven into the fabric of the Passion and death of Jesus Christ.

The liturgy of Passion Sunday is a collision of themes: glorious hosannas and somber omens. Isaiah promised a servant of God who would have a ‘face set like flint’ to brave the pummeling, spit, and ridicule. Paul’s lovely hymn in Philippians is one of triumph—’every knee should bend in heaven and earth and every tongue confess’—but only after disgrace and ignominious death.

It goes unnoticed, for the most part, that the inescapable context of the Passion is a national, tribal, and political struggle. The betrayals are always hatched in the presence of looming authorities who seduce the betrayer—the Judas, the Peter, the disciple in us. You cannot avoid the sense that there is some profound geopolitical strife going on here. The stage is set for armed violence, the raised sword in the cause of right. There are secret police and public meetings of high priests, governors, assemblies. There are political prisoners. Finally, there is a crisis of authority. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Are you the king of Christians? Are you the king of Catholics?

They are questions that history poses not only to Christ, but to all who follow him. What would be our answer? Who or what is the real object of our allegiance?7

It is easy to see the crisis of allegiance that the people of Jesus’ time confronted. Jesus was condemned, not for any guilt on his part, but out of the leaders’ fear of losing power and control; self-defense and corporate survival justified and motivated their actions.

The chief priests and leaders found themselves with an uneasy feeling—threatened by Jesus and his followers. To them, he was an existential threat to national and religious interests. We can almost hear the fear in their voices: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come in and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Even Caiaphas states what is too often in our own hearts and minds, “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

Over two millennia and yet there remains a lingering suspicion that the crisis of Palm Sunday is the crisis of every time and culture. Now, as then, we are torn between Christ and tribe; uncertain as to where to place our full allegiance: with Jesus Christ or with the nation. With which king do we attend?

With every moral crisis faced, we dread the choices which must be made. Just as Jesus, in his time, was rejected and condemned for reasons of national security; so he is today.

Each of us has been tempted by evil and failed to resist its siren call. We have died to sin and in such death have found ourselves broken, humiliated and ashamed. But through Christ’s humiliating crucifixion, horrifying death and salvific resurrection we have been given the opportunity to be reborn, to rise from the death of sin into new life with Jesus Christ.

As we approach this Holy Week, let us ask ourselves in prayer whether our faith is as strong as it ought to be. Are we willing to carry our cross to Calvary? Are we willing to suffer and be crucified for our faults and failures? Are we willing to die for him who suffered and died for us? These are questions we should, from deep within our hearts, ask ourselves.


Homily #117 Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (A)
Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-7
Philippians 2:6-11
Matthew 26:14—27:66

1 Ron Rolheiser, In Exile: High Season for Religion Foes, St. Louis University Center for Sunday Liturgy.
2 Mt 21:9.
3 Ron Rolheiser, In Exile: High Season for Religion Foes.
4 Phil 2:3-4.
5 Phil 2:5-8.
6 St. Augustine, Tractates on John 51:3-4.
7 John Kavanaugh, SJ, Betrayal, St. Louis University Center for Sunday Liturgy.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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